Arkansas is otherwise known as “The Natural State,” an easy fact to remember while at the Wakarusa Music & Camping Festival. Perched atop Mulberry Mountain, the festival grounds are surrounded by deep Ozark woods while the Mulberry River flows nearby.
Wakarusa feels like it exists within its own wonderful world. It features all of the camping festival staples: delicious food, vendors selling their wares, hula hoopers, fire dancers and various other performance artists. But with a disc golf course on site and both a waterfall and a river nearby, Wakarusa feels a little different than most other festivals.
Over the years, Wakarusa has steadily grown. Starting in Lawrence, Kan. before migrating to its current location in Ozark, Ark., the festival boasts stellar acts this year such as Mumford & Sons and My Morning Jacket.
After arriving at the festival early Thursday morning and setting up camp, I was determined to find a fun show to kick off the weekend. It didn’t take a long look at the schedule for me to decide that Those Darlins were just the girls for the job. The Murfreesboro rockers set the mood for the next couple of days with their party attitude and a unique brand of country punk rock. I saw Those Darlins for the first time at SXSW this year, and I’ve been hooked since. They were even better the second time around.
The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring, eating and popping into various shows, including North Mississippi Allstars Duo and Minus the Bear. But the next performance I really settled in for was Grace Potter & The Nocturnals. The sultry soul singer was on top of her game at the main stage, wailing away as The Nocturnals busted out riffs reminiscent of legendary groups like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. (At one point during the performance, a friend and I argued over the first few notes of a song whether or not Potter was covering “Good Times, Bad Times” or “War Pigs.” Turned out it was an original from the group.)
The first time I saw a Grace Potter & The Nocturnals performance, she was opening for The Avett Brothers. I remember being extremely impressed by her energy and persona, as I was largely unfamiliar with her work at the time. But it was really nice to see her take the spotlight with her Waka performance. At the Wakarusa press conference, Potter even credited such festival performances as a key part of her group’s success.
When the blistering sun finally decided to go down, and the stars began to peek out, I elected to return to the main stage once again to bring the night to a close with Umphrey’s McGee. The group was certainly at their jam-bandiest, and that was a good thing. The crowd certainly seemed to love it. Everywhere people were dancing, busting moves and just generally getting down. I have to admit that I joined in. It would have been impossible not to. Umphrey’s played several fan favorites like “All in Time,” but the cover songs they slipped into the set were among my favorite parts of the performance. I know renditions of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” made appearances, and at one point it seemed like they were jamming to Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.”
Nothing is off limits at Wakarusa.